There’s an almost scientific sense of precision to the Devil in the White City cocktail at The Corner, the restaurant and bar opened in mid-December by former Buddakan chef Scott Swiderski. It would have been so easy for this apple brandy-based drink to slide down the road of least resistance, and lean into the sweeter aspects of its flavor profile. But it doesn’t, and in the astounding attention to detail with which it’s composed, it pays perhaps inadvertent homage to the narrow, urbane space’s former tenant, Apothecary. So too does the tequila Old Fashioned.
In the conception and execution of these cocktails, The Corner makes itself into a worthy successor to both Apothecary and, following that speakeasyish temple to booze, APO. What sets The Corner apart from its predecessor is its lack of the sort of self-conscious mixological righteousness that occasionally hovered over the experience there. (It never marred it, of course, and Apothecary is still owed a serious debt of gratitude by anyone in town who likes a well-crafted cocktail). The drinks here are great, and the bar’s transformation has been as seamless as you could hope: The narrow downstairs space with an open kitchen and two revered chefs, the well-chosen soundtrack, walls that reflect and magnify sound, creating a literally audible buzz of energy. It is, in other words, perfectly blended with so much that has made this slice of the city one of the most exciting to visit for a meal or a tipple: Zavino, the Valerie Safran-Marcie Turney empire, El Vez, Time and the rest. It’s young and energetic, and like its neighbors, comfortable enough for the several families I saw dining next to googly-eyed daters on a recent Friday night.
I just wish the food was as exciting as the vibe and the booze.
I understand the desire to pay homage to all the influencing cultures that have impacted what we now know as “American cuisine,” but it’s difficult to keep the totality of them on a single menu cohesive, and lead to a whole that speaks of more than simply the sum of its parts. The Corner’s missteps are in this regard.
Masa tots—think tater tots, but made with masa—were theoretically promising. In practice, however, the ground corn absorbed a bit too much oil in frying, and as a result lacked the fluffy-centered allure of their classic potato counterparts. The appealingly dense filling of potato pierogies was hemmed in by too-gummy dough encasing it. Shrimp in a blanket, however, hit its intended target, and seem to be the kind of dish that will ultimately define The Corner: Internationally inspired yet still rooted in a familiarly-American concept. The dish’s simplicity is its allure—large prawns were wrapped in kataifi, or shredded phyllo, and deep fried. It was executed perfectly, the kataifi splintering with each bite and juxtaposed in a neat little dance with the soft prawn inside.
Thin-skinned and crisp fried chicken also worked well, cider brining lending a sweetness to the meat. Ribs succeeded too, though given the menu’s description of “maple-bourbon glazed,” I expected a more gooey, lusty presentation than the rather austere set of ribs I was served. These were a hybrid of sorts on wet and dry ribs, they possessed a delicate glaze on top, though the rub on the meat also played a pivotal role. While the first bite led to some confusion, they ultimately worked very well.
A classic cheeseburger showed more truthful advertising: Juicy ground beef, aged cheddar, bun. Only the accompanying pickle was an outlier, its delicate Asian flavors causing some dissonance when interacting with the more forceful American ones of the sandwich.
Truffle grilled cheese would have been better with less truffly savor: The short ribs peeking up throughout possessed enough headiness on their own; the addition of sottocenere cheese, though excellent for a few bites, overpowered and made it difficult to finish.
It seems that Swiderski, alongside chef John Taus, most notably of Snackbar and Buddakan, work well together, and are at their best when channeling the flavors of Asia. A side of Brussels sprouts, for instance, were anchored by the inclusion of sweet Chinese sausage. The pickle that threw off the burger made all the sense in the world when sliced to translucent discs the color of sea glass and employed as a base for the ribs.
Nothing here truly failed (except the coffee, which tasted like melted plastic and was too hot), but in order to make itself a repeat-visit kind of place, The Corner needs a greater sense of cohesion. All the parts are here—it’s just a matter of re-jiggering them to fit together more completely. In the meantime, sip a cocktail or three while you wait: They’ll make the time pass as smoothly as you could ever ask for.
102 S. 13th St. 215.735.7500
Cuisine: American, with homage paid to many of its influencing cuisines.
Hours: Mon.-Weds., 5pm-midnight; Thurs.-Sat., 5pm-2am.
Price range: $4-$18.
Atmosphere: Comfortable and thoroughly urban: Great buzz in the room. The upstairs space, complete with patio, continues to be a great addition to the neighborhood.
Food: Shows promise, but more menu coherence would help.
Service: Thoughtful, informed and well-suited to the space and the concept.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014